Education-tax measure has inaccurate ballot title

The title on the ballot for Initiative 884, which would increase the sales tax to pay for education, is inaccurate.

It says the initiative would be financed “by increasing the retail sales tax by 1 percent.”

The state portion of the sales tax actually would increase by 1 percentage point, from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent. But that is a 15 percent increase in the rate of the state sales tax. If the increase were 1 percent, it would make the new rate only 6.565 percent.

The problem, said assistant attorney general Jeff Even, is that a Thurston County Superior Court judge rewrote the title after it was challenged in court, and the judge changed the language Even had recommended to keep it within the 30-word limit.

Even had written it as “a new 1 percent retail sales tax.” The judge shortened it to what’s on the ballot.

Another assistant attorney general, Jim Pharris, agreed that the title is not accurate. His office has been fielding questions about it, but he expects most voters know what the measure would do.

“Anyone who reads the explanatory statement will understand it,” said Pharris, “but if a voter votes on the ballot title only, that’s a serious problem. I don’t want people to misunderstand that [the sales tax] will only go up a tiny fraction.”

A math lesson

Percent means per hundred; it tells you how many out of 100, a part of the whole.

Percentage is the scale measuring percent, with 100 points in the scale.

Percentage point is the number a percentage increases or decreases.

Percent of change is the amount of change divided by the original amount. In the case of Initiative 884, that’s 1 divided by 6.5 — which is 0.1538, or 15.38 percent.

Even said the initiative opponents who challenged the ballot title wanted it to say that the measure “would increase by 1 percent the retail sales tax,” which wasn’t accurate either.

Judge Christine Pomeroy, the Thurston County judge who wrote the title, declined to talk about it yesterday. But Even said the state voters guide inaccurately says the ballot title was written by the Attorney General’s Office, when it actually was written by Pomeroy.

Even said he protested when the judge issued her wording, but that she disagreed.

“I said it was confusing that people would think the tax was going up 1 percent but the rate wasn’t 1 percent,” said Even. “She said I was wrong.”

Jamie Daniels, with the League of Freedom Voters, which opposes the initiative, said her organization is fielding more than two dozen calls a day about the ballot title. She said the league challenged the ballot title, believing 1 percent was not accurate, even though she agreed that the language her group wanted wasn’t accurate either.

“We’re doing everything we can to inform people it isn’t accurate,” said Daniels. “But I don’t know what we could do about it at this point.”

But Steve Miller, with the League of Education Voters, which sponsored the initiative, calls the flap a red herring. The tax increase, he said, is implied.

“I don’t think it’s flawed,” he said. “Sales tax and sales-tax rate is the same thing. The irony is this anti-tax group got [the judge] to change the ballot title, and now they’re whining. What don’t people understand about a penny?”

Lisa Macfarlane, an initiative leader, called the ballot-language dispute a “nonissue.”

“You pay a sales tax on a purchase. It is a 1 percent increase,” she said. “The opponents are just grasping.”

If the measure does pass, could the perceived problem with the ballot title lead to lawsuits? Pharris doesn’t think so.

“Anything could be litigated, but I don’t think the courts would seriously entertain a lawsuit,” he said. But he added there have been lawsuits in California from voters who believed they were misled on ballot measures.

“We haven’t had those kind of cases here,” Pharris said, “but there could be one.”

Secretary of State Sam Reed said yesterday he is troubled by the I-884 ballot title and may issue a clarification to voters.

Record turnout predicted

Reed also said there could be record voter turnout on Nov. 2.

He is predicting an 84 percent turnout, the highest since World War II. He said the record turnout was 84.5 percent in 1944.

Reed said the presidential race, a heated governor’s race, other contested races and ballot measures are all driving turnout forecasts. The state also is reporting a record number of registered voters.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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